Monday, February 28, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Professor Haldane

In its Autumn 1946 edition, Modern Quarterly published an article by Professor J.B.S. Haldane attacking Lewis’s science fiction trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. After Lewis’s death Walter Hooper found an unpublished reply that Lewis had written; Hooper writes:

-and here the manuscript ends. One page (I think no more) is missing. It was probably lost soon after the essay was written, and without Lewis’s knowledge, for he had, characteristically, folder the manuscript and scribbled the title ‘Anti-Haldane’ on one side with a pencil.
Lewis’s reply was unpublished in his lifetime and was first presented to the public in the collection of essays and short stories, Of Other Worlds – Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis.

While there is no substitute for reading Lewis’s reply in its entirety, I want to highlight a few sections in some postings.

Lewis begins:

I had better note the one point of agreement between us. I think, from the Professor’s complaint that my characters are ‘like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left’, he suspects me of finding the sanctions of conduct in reward and punishment. His suspicion is erroneous. I share his detestation for any such view…In my romances [note that Lewis uses the term romance in a technical literary sense – the Space Trilogy is romantic] the ‘good’ characters are in fact rewarded. This is because I consider a happy ending appropriate to the light, holiday kind of ‘poetic justice’ of romance for an ethical theorem. I would go further. Detestation for any ethic which worships success is one of my chief reasons for disagreeing with most communists. [Remember that Lewis is writing in 1946, right after WWII.] In my experience they tend, when all else fails, to tell me that I ought to forward the revolution because ‘it is bound to come’. One dissuaded me from my own position on the shockingly irrelevant ground that if I continued to hold it I should, in good time, be “mown down’ – argued, as a cancer might argue if it could talk, that he must be right because he could kill me. [Bold print mine.]

Lewis, I should warn some readers, is only using communists as an example, before his essay is over he will cast a wide net.

As you can see from my use of bold print the ethic of “if it leads to success it is right/might makes right” caught my attention for it is the ethic of not only our society, but of much of the professing church.

Yesterday I read an advertisement for a “minister of spiritual formation” posted by a church. Among the qualifications is a “successful track record of multiplying small groups”. The entire posting read like a posting for a business executive – a history of success, success, and more success was required. Such a history may or may not be the “track record” of someone who knows the territory of spiritual formation into the image of Jesus Christ. Any pastor or vocational minister of the Gospel who knows the Gospel should be cautious about communicating an ethos of success to his people – for the way of the Cross is hardly a way of success – at least not success in the eyes of the world, nor success in the eyes of the aforementioned church seeking a minister of spiritual formation. Transformation into the image of Jesus Christ occurs, more often than not, in the crucible of defeat, disappointment, and rejection.

The Gospel of the Cross of Christ is about finding our lives in Christ; not finding our lives in success. The truth of the Gospel is a truth to live and die by without regard to pragmatic considerations. Elsewhere in his body of writing Lewis writes in effect, “I don’t believe the Gospel because of what it does for me; I believe the Gospel because it is true.” [That’s not an exact quote but it’s close].

Do I realize how deeply an ethic of success has penetrated my own heart and thinking? What about you?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1954 Dorothy L. Sayers published, Introductory Papers on Dante. I am concluding my reading of this volume, as well as nearing the end of Paradise, the final volume of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The edition I’m reading is translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, with the exception of the last section of Paradise; Sayers’s death left that part incomplete and her friend and colleague Dr. Barbara Reynolds finished the task.

On November 14, 1954, Lewis wrote to Sayers:

Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast. They even enlarged my vocabulary…It is a lovely book…P.97 is you at your very best; and how good you can be!

It is a fairly long letter. Lewis shares his thoughts on various sections of the book, and takes gentle issue with one complete chapter. He and Sayers will have a friendly interchange on this chapter, titled The Comedy of the Comedy.

I love this letter from Lewis to Sayers for a few reasons. The first is that I love both Lewis and Sayers; they are two friends I’ve never met, though the fact is that I don’t know that either one would find in me compatible friendship material; I’d more likely be the Village Idiot. Because they are two friends I take joy in their correspondence.

Lewis and Sayers admired Charles Williams; Lewis loved him; I don’t know that Sayers knew him that well, but he was a major influence on her life for it was Williams that spurred Sayers on her quest to know and translate Dante. So when I read their correspondence I sense the backdrop of Charles Williams.

Lewis corresponded with Sayers as an equal. While Lewis wasn’t attracted to Detective Stories, and therefore wasn’t drawn to Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, he saw a first-class mind in Sayers and engaged her in the straightforward manner of discussion he was accustomed to within the Inklings. Had Lewis not respected Sayers and not held her in high regard I don’t think the tenor of their correspondence would have had both the intellectual sharpness and playful humor that is evident. And this means that they can disagree and do it with respect. This means that critique is part of the relationship, just as with the Inklings. Critique is part of the adventure, part of the discovery, part of the friendship.

I am aware of only one time that one Inkling took another Inking’s critique personally and with pain; and that is when Tolkien criticized Lewis’s Narnia stories. While it makes sense that there must have been other times of hurt in Inklings’ relationships (it is said that Tolkien was hurt at the place Charles Williams took in Lewis’s life, for Tolkien felt he was being supplanted), Tolkien’s criticism is the only recorded instance of this that I am aware of – keeping in mind that I am no expert.

When Barbara Reynolds wrote her biography of Dorothy L. Sayers she titled it, The Passionate Intellect. Reading the correspondence of Lewis and Sayers gives me the joy of  seeing two passionate intellects engaged in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

C.S. Lewis and The Divine Meridian

On November 30, 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote to Walter Hooper:

We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and repent of them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow: similarly when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we help to fill. But how far one is from this at present!

This is a wide and deep ocean, this issue of self-consciousness; it is an ocean we navigate the whole of our lives. There may be seasons in which obliviousness to self is healthy, and there may be seasons in which obliviousness to self is toxic; whatever the season, if we navigate with Christ as our North Star we can trust Him to reveal to us what He wills and in His light we will see light.

Self-preoccupation is a Dead Sea; we are called to be preoccupied with Christ and others, not with self.

Paul counsels the Corinthians to examine themselves when they approach the Lord’s Table lest they partake of the Table in an unworthy manner. My thinking on this passage (1Corinthians 11:23 – 34) is that we are to particularly examine our relationships with one another and not to partake of the Table if our relationships require mending, forgiveness, and reconciliation; after all, we are the Body of Christ.

The author of Psalm 139 prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting.” Only God and His Word can do the necessary work within us. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of the soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” Hebrews 4:12.  

Where are we today in reference to the Divine meridian?

Monday, February 7, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Desiring Death

In a letter dated November 5, 1954, Lewis writes a friend:

About death, I go through different moods, but the times when I can desire it are never, I think, when this world seems harshest. On the contrary, it is just when there seems to be most of Heaven already here that I come nearest to longing for the patria. It is the bright frontispiece [which] whets one to read the story itself. All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status: always reminds, beckons, awakes desire. Our best havings are wantings.

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church (2Cor. 5:1ff):

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven…so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.

Lewis writes, “Our best havings are wantings.” Lewis realized that when he experienced joy that that joy was a foretaste of eternal joy. It was, if you will, eternal joy breaking into the realm of the visible with the purpose of drawing us into the invisible in Christ. Our problem often is that we take joy and reduce it to something we consume, rather than asking ourselves, “What does this joy mean? What of the eternals is it communicating to me? What longing in my heart is this joy fulfilling?”

To chase after the experience of joy in the things of this life, thinking that we will be ultimately fulfilled by the things of this world, is as a man or woman in a desert chasing after one mirage after another. But, when touching and experiencing joy in this life we learn to recognize that we are touching something drawing us onward and upward into our eternal joy in Christ; that is when joy is sacramental, that is when joy grows the sons and daughters of God, that is when our desire for Heaven can transform us from glory to glory.

Contra Lewis’s experience, there are times when the hardships and sufferings of life also awaken a desire for Heaven; one has to only taste the Negro Spirituals birthed in the pathos of slavery to recognize that; and many of us have had seasons of life in which, sapped of earthly hope and strength, we have longed for Heaven. It is good to know that “this is not all there is”.

In a society that emphasizes pleasure and enjoyment, as opposed to joy, it is good to remind ourselves that when we touch true joy that we are touching Heaven; and that we should not profane that joy by thinking it something we can capture, requiring it to serve us; but should rather let it do its perfect work within us, leading us onward and upward to the Lamb who gave His life for us.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Of Lamentations and Candlesticks

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation Chapters 2 – 3.  To the church in Ephesus Christ says, “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent,” Revelation 2:5.

As I write this I am conscious that when I read the Seven Letters that I tend to focus on the promises to the “overcomer”. I have studied those promises, preached on those promises, and I meditate on those promises. I have never preached on the judgments of Christ in these letters; I have never preached on the words, “…or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place.” To be sure I have taught on the dynamics of the Seven Churches; I have taught on the sin and disobedience that Christ speaks to in those churches; but just as surely I have never made it a point to focus on the pending judgment of Christ should the disobedience continue.

However, a couple of weeks ago I asked myself, “What does it look like when Christ removes a candlestick? What does it look like when Christ removes a church?” (In Revelation 1:20 we learn that a lampstand in this context represents a church). When Christ removes a candlestick/lampstand does anyone notice?

I don’t think that removal of a candlestick means physical removal of a church, of a people. While it could mean physical removal of a people; it need not mean that; it could culminate in physical removal, but it need not end in physical removal. When Christ removes a candlestick does anyone notice?

This morning I read Lamentations in one sitting, and I think perhaps for the first time I sensed the lamentation in Lamentations. The language is grim, “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; They became food for them because of the destruction of my people,” Lamentations 4:10. While this describes the siege and destruction of Jerusalem around 586 B.C., Josephus has a similar description of Jerusalem in the siege of 70 A.D. It is dark business indeed when a lampstand is removed.

Because ancient Jerusalem and the Seven Churches are both examples of syncretism and alliance with the world-system; because they both are perhaps examples of people using cultural common sense to sustain themselves in what would otherwise be a hostile environment; I’m not sure that it would be easy to see anything wrong in much of what these people did – unless God’s Word and character were the benchmarks. It is so easy to rationalize syncretism, to rationalize adopting the world’s ways and means, to rationalize making Yahweh and Jesus inoffensive and perhaps even cuddly. And yet…and yet…the judgment of God in Lamentations is indeed the judgment of God; and the warnings of Christ in Revelation to the churches are warnings of judgment – the judgment of Christ.

If Lamentations speaks to us today as a metaphor of God and His people; and if Christ in Revelation speaks to us today as the One Who walks in the midst of the candlesticks; then can we really think that when professing Christians in our nation live as the world lives that there are no candlesticks being removed? But then I come back to my question, When Christ removes a candlestick does anyone notice?

If we are accustomed to functioning in our own strength, why would we notice?